As a licensed dietitian and a certified coach of Intuitive Eating, calories are an important topic that I love to hate and, well, hate to love. Similar to weight loss, the discussion of calories often comes with its fair share of varying perspectives and beliefs.
Quick recap: Intuitive eating is a nondiet approach that teaches us how to have a healthy relationship with both food and body. Throughout this process, we learn how to make choices surrounding food (and even exercise) based on our body’s signals, rather than on body weight goals, food/health rules, or caloric goals. Our food choices aren’t solely based on what’s “good” or what’s “healthy,” but rather, stem from what satisfies us and what enables us to feel good both mentally and physically. But while eating intuitively is an incredible skill for anyone to learn, it’s often a long-term goal for those coming from a history knee-deep in diet culture.
From my decade of experience, I can confidently say that many dancers (and athletes, for the most part) underestimate their calorie needs. This can happen intentionally or unintentionally. High levels of activity are known to blunt hunger and as a result, busy dancers may genuinely have misguided hunger (or lack thereof) throughout the day.
Additionally, dancers are vulnerable to messages about body weight and antiquated ideals of what a dancer’s body “should” look like. Because of this, many dancers may choose to intentionally reduce their caloric intake as a means to lose weight and/or control their food intake– both of which can harm a dancer’s longterm career. Consistent undereating, whether it be for weeks, months, or years, can impede one’s hunger cues as the body naturally responds to the caloric restriction with a subsequent reduction in metabolic rate.
With these intentional and unintentional factors negatively impacting a dancer’s ability to fuel intuitively, calorie-awareness is sometimes an essential part of a dancer’s learning process. This is especially true for dancers needing to restore and/or gain weight. The difficulty with calorie-awareness, however, is if a dancer develops obsessive tendencies around a calculated calorie goal. For this reason, it’s not only recommended that dancers refrain from relying too heavily on target calorie goals, but also that they work alongside a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist if wanting to learn more about their daily needs.
Since calories provide the energy needed to not only perform but also sustain basic metabolic functioning, then eating too few calories risks injury and nutrient deficiencies. And because calories are a widely confusing and sometimes misguided topic, I want to cover a few common questions:
I want to fuel my body sufficiently. How many calories should I aim for?
There are many different calculations available to determine one’s daily calorie needs. Some are based on gold-standard evidential support and others are based on nothing more than a thumbs up from Google University. The problem with any quick calculation, however, is its inability to account for one’s true individual energy expenditure (or the number of calories the body is burning in one day). The International Association of Dance Medicine suggests a “rough estimate of 45-50 calories per kilogram of body weight for females and 50-55 calories per kilogram of body weight for males,” which is based on research from the sports community (1,2,3). This is a great starting point, but it won’t account for individual variations. It is therefore emphasized that anyone looking for specific guidance should seek the help of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
Should I count calories?
In short, no. Counting calories is not a prerequisite to “health.” In fact, counting calories will do more harm than good, especially when it comes to your mental health. Calorie-counting throughout your day sacrifices your time, which could otherwise be spent broadening your technique and working on your overall performance goals. Here are a few additional sacrifices to consider when counting calories day-in and day-out:
- Your social life will go downhill as dining out becomes a research-driven frenzy of what can and cannot fit into your daily calorie goal.
- You’ll lose out on the enjoyment of food as your daily choices depend primarily on a numbered-target rather than on your personal food preferences.
- You’ll start feeling guilty if and when you break from your imposed calorie limit (and trust me… it’ll happen!)
As mentioned previously, calorie-awareness may be a helpful tool for dancers needing to restore and/or gain weight. You’ll want to make sure that your body is sufficiently fueled. Use the tools discussed in the next question to assess whether or not you need to boost your intake.
If I don’t count, then how do I know if I’m eating enough calories?
This is a legitimate concern, especially as you work hard to succeed as an artistic athlete. There are several signs that we should consider when the question of whether or not our daily caloric intake is enough. For girls and women, sufficient caloric intake is most often evidenced by a consistent menstrual cycle. Functional Hypothalamic Amenorrhea occurs when those with normal regular cycles miss a period for 3 or more consecutive months or, in those with irregular cycles, miss a period for 6 or more consecutive months.
For boys and males, it can be harder to identify a caloric deficit, but this doesn’t mean that males have any less of a risk. Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (previously known as the Female Athlete Triad) can help to identify a broader range of negative health consequences that result from consistent undereating. Some of these include a lack of concentration, recurrent injuries, chronic fatigue, irritability, depression, loss of muscle strength, and decreased coordination. Here are a few more:
If you can relate to one or more of these symptoms, then it may be a sign that you’re not eating enough. It’s recommended that both female and male dancers consult with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and/or a medical doctor to better identify their risk for hormonal imbalances related to energy deficiency.
But what if I’m eating too many calories?
Overeating and portion control are two major points of interest for many dancers and I discuss them further in the following articles and videos. Identifying the source of your concern and learning how to eat mindfully are two helpful strategies. Check out the following videos for additional guidance:
- Guebels CP, Kam LC, Maddalozzo GF, Manore MM. Active women before/after an intervention designed to restore menstrual function: Resting metabolic rate and comparison of four methods to quantify energy expenditure and energy availability. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014;24(1):37-46.
- Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance
- Loucks AB. Energy balance and energy availability. In: Maughan RJ, ed. Sports Nutrition, The Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine, an IOC Medical Commission Publication. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2013:72-87.